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How do you say “Oscar justice” in Romanian? It’s been a long time coming, but more than a decade into the extraordinary national filmmaking renaissance that has seen Romanian cinema lauded by critics and festivals the world over, the august Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has finally managed to get with the program, selecting director Christian Mungiu’s remarkable third feature, Beyond the Hills, as one of the nine “shortlisted” films for the 2013 Foreign Language Oscar.
It’s a particularly sweet victory for Mungiu, whose previous feature, the searing Cueasescu-era abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival as well as a truckload of other prestigious prizes, only to be shafted by Oscar in 2008. As I wrote at the time, that omission was one of the Academy’s lowest moments, and the latest in a long trail of evidence suggesting that the process for determining Oscar’s foreign finalists was in dramatic need of an overhaul.
As it happened, the Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man), then serving as chairman of the Academy’s Foreign Language nominating committee, was in agreement. Already by the time of the 4 Months scandal, he had modified the nominating process to include a committee of hand-picked Academy members to determine the final pool of five nominees from the shortlisted nine. However, the shortlist itself was still being determined by a large “Phase I” committee consisting of Academy members from all branches who volunteered to screen the eligible films (think: retirees with a lot of time on their hands).
So, starting in 2009, Johnson cut back the Phase I committee’s power, allowing them to select only six of the nine shortlisted films, and instituted another blue-ribbon committee to select the additional three titles after learning of the six titles chosen by the Phase I group. And while this system has hardly been without its hiccups, it has unquestionably been a major improvement, resulting in a whole slew of recent nominees (including Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s dark fable The Milk of Sorrow and Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ très outré Dogtooth) that would almost certainly have been shut out under the old system.
Premiered at Cannes this past May, where it went on to win prizes for Best Screenplay and Best Actress (shared by newcomers Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan), Beyond the Hills was adapted by Mungiu from two non-fiction novels by author Tatiana Niculescu Bran, themselves based on actual incidents that occurred at a remote monastery in Romania’s Moldova region in 2005. As in 4 Months, the focus is on two young women, childhood friends from an orphanage where the tough, short-tempered Alina (Flutur) served as a protector for the more delicate Voichita (Stratan). Now, years later, Voichita is a postulant under the stern gaze of a priest known only as Papa (played by the excellent Valeriu Andriuta). Visiting from Germany, Alina tries to convince her friend to leave the cloistered life and run away with her, but as the fateful hour draws near, Voichita seems ever less inclined to make the move. So Alina stays on for a while, at which point she begins to act strangely, possessively—or maybe just possessed.
If 4 Months will forever be known colloquially as “the Romanian abortion movie,” then Beyond the Hills seems sure to be tagged as “the Romanian exorcism movie,” though there are no turning heads or pea-soup vomit to be seen here. Rather, Mungiu’s film is as intriguing for what it doesn’t show as what it does, and for the cool, non-judgmental stance it takes on matters of religion, casting its most savage gaze not on the Orthodox Church but rather the social infrastructure (or lack thereof) that leaves young women like Voichita with nowhere else to turn. And like 4 Months, it is moment for moment gripping, brilliantly acted, and visually ravishing—confirmation of Mungiu as one of the most gifted directors at work today, in Romania or elsewhere. When Sundance Selects releases the film here in the spring, be sure to see it.
Of course, for Mungiu, the suspense isn’t over just yet. To make it to Oscar night, Beyond the Hills still has to clear the “Phase II” hurdle, in which this year’s shortlist will be whittled down to the five final nominees. And make no mistake: the competition is fierce. In addition to Mungiu’s film, the shortlist includes Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour, a title certain to factor in multiple other Oscar categories as well; the blockbuster French comedy The Intouchables, another movie about a sick person and their caretakers, albeit in a very different register from Haneke’s film; Pablo Larrain’s razor-sharp political satire No, about the Chilean advertising execs enlisted to work on the anti-Pinochet TV campaign leading up to the historic 1988 referendum; and Nikolaj Arcel’s sensational historical drama A Royal Affair, which concerns the clash of Enlightenment thinking and Dark Ages politics in 18th century Denmark.
All told, it would be the most satisfying Foreign Language shortlist in years, were it not for one inexcusable omission: German director Christian Petzold’s Cold War melodrama Barbara. One of this year’s best films by any measure, Petzold’s masterful study of a woman doctor sent to work in the East German hinterlands after trying to escape to the West won a deserved Best Director prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and has recently arrives in American theaters to a whole new wave of acclaim for both Petzold and his magnificent leading lady, Nina Hoss. Perhaps some on the Foreign Language committee took umbrage with Petzold’s terse, clear-eyed look at life under the Stasi, preferring instead the sentimentalized Hollywood stylings of a similarly themed recent Oscar winner, The Lives of Others —a movie to which Barbara serves as a well-deserved rebuke. How do you say “Oscar scandal” in German?